Surprisingly, Saturday's game between Northwestern and Michigan has gone from preseason afterthought to a matchup of top-20 teams.
The game promises to be an immense challenge for both sides, as the two squads boast two of the country's top defenses.
Both Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald and Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh gave their previews of Saturday's game in their respective weekly press conferences Monday, and unsurprisingly both were effusive in their praise of their deserving opponent.
But it was maybe what the two coaches — two of the conference's more intriguing head men — said about each other that was of perhaps the most interest.
“Great competitor," Harbaugh said about Fitzgerald. "I was at Stanford, he was at Northwestern, first crossed paths on the recruiting trail. Sized him up and said, ‘This guy is a fine, fine coach and a great competitor.’ He’s done a fabulous job, he’s a great coach. Got to know him this summer, he came to our football camp, did a tremendous job talking to the campers and sharing football lessons and life lessons with them. That was fabulous. (Northwestern’s) football team is a tremendous football team, so everything you look at with Pat Fitzgerald is really good. Admire him.”
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Fitzgerald was likewise quite complimentary of Harbaugh and had a unique viewpoint given he grew up in the Chicagoland area when Harbaugh played for the Bears.
“Obviously I was a fan growing up. He played, watched him play for the Bears. Him and Ditka getting after it on the sideline, that was pretty cool," Fitzgerald said. "Got to know him a little bit, personally, through coaching when he was at Stanford and we’d see each other a little bit in recruiting. And from afar, great respect for the success he’s had not only as a player but then the stops along the way, great success on the field and great job what he did at Stanford. And then goes on to the 49ers and has them in the Super Bowl. You’ve got to tip your hat to the success that he’s had.
“Jim’s a tough guy, and you can see that his personality’s all over this football team in all three phases.”
Harbaugh's praise of Northwestern went further, with the first-year Michigan coach calling the Wildcats one of the best defenses the Wolverines have played this season, with extra compliments for linebacker Anthony Walker.
"They react, as athletic and fast as anybody we’ve seen," Harbaugh said. "(Walker) is as good a player as we’ve faced. Really good scheme, they play great team defense, leading the country in points allowed. I think that’s the thing, mainly, is that this team reacts and flows to the ball as good as you’re going to see in college football.”
The two teams are heaping praise now, but surely when Saturday afternoon rolls around, things won't be quite as cordial.